Revolution 2009: The Beatles Remasters

The new versions might not strike you as drastically different. Buy some anyway.

Forty years from now, when we can regard our woeful current era using the prism of historical perspective and clarity through which we're now regarding the Beatles, perhaps then we can pinpoint the first decade of the 21st century's one true dastardly musical villain: the earbud.

A pox upon you, foul device. Inelegant cudgel of social status, haughty impediment to casual subway conversation, harbinger of tinnitus, obliterator of superior fidelity. On Wednesday, a great many thousands of Beatlemaniacs will shell out in the neighborhood of $600 for two box sets of extravagantly remastered records they probably already own, rip those suckers to iTunes-type computer programs, and blast them on iPod-type portable MP3 players through earbuds (overpriced at $30 or so) that render the sonic differences between the old stuff, the new stereo stuff, and the new mono stuff thoroughly negligible.

Oh, brows will furrow, eyes squint, and migraines arise amid those who struggle to hear the difference anyway, straining desperately to detect something warmer, fuller, clearer, grittier, sharper, punchier, etc., etc. Which doesn't mean that that sort of thing isn't there—just that 40-plus years of improved technology have led us, paradoxically, to such alleged innovations as the disdainful 128-bitrate MP3, the sonic equivalent of pressing your ear to the wall to hear the band playing next door. You have to admire the Beatles-industrial-complex's restraint in waiting so long for the gala, full-catalog remaster roll-out to smite forever the original 1987 CD versions that everyone hates. They could have sold you Revolver five times over by now. But in 2009, better sound quality means as little to as many as it ever has. Will anyone bite now? Should they?

Oh, hell, yes. Do not misunderstand: These reissues all sound utterly fantastic. It's just that 80 to 95 percent of that is simply due to the fact that it's the fucking Beatles. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is still "I Want to Hold Your Hand," whatever you're dealing with. You want a totally new perspective on the Fab Four's catalog? Get The Beatles: Rock Band. (Given that incredulous fans roundly preferred the full-album Guitar Hero download of Metallica's Death Magnetic to the mega-overdrive CD version, maybe video games are the future of music after all.) But the wealth of non-plastic-instrument-based Beatles ephemera out this week is stunning indeed. Choose between the stereo box (every studio album plus both sets of Past Masters, 16 discs total) and the mono box (same deal, but no Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, or Let It Be, none of which were mixed in real mono, plus the original Help! and Rubber Soul stereo mixes tacked onto those CDs, 13 discs total). Yes, choose.

The mono deal, particularly, is a collector's wet dream: Available only as a complete set (the stereo records will also be sold separately), they're presented as scaled-down, painstakingly exact vinyl replicas, with the original cardboard sleeves and even the little paper inserts exhorting you to "check your gramophone stylus regularly." A bit cheesy and fetishistic? Sure. The initial limited-edition run of 10,000 sold out in pre-order. Relax, they'll make more—and sell those, too.

This is the very apex of audiophilia; though we may loathe the earbud, let us take care not to swing too far in the other direction. The Chicago Tribune recently convened a gang of Beatles obsessives in front of a $120,000 stereo setup to high-five each other when Paul's voice cracks on "If I Fell" and argue about the lower strings on "Eleanor Rigby," the overzealous bass on "Here Comes the Sun," the organic instrumental separation of "Hey Jude," etc. You're torn between genuine affection for their enthusiasm and an unhealthy urge to relocate them and their stereo alike onto a bus and then drive it off a cliff. Resist that urge. For those with slightly more than $30 but slightly less than $120,000 to throw at this endeavor, don't expect new miracles from these remasters, no. But only because the music itself was already miraculous enough.

In an otherwise awkward and unremarkable interview with Jay-Z on Bill Maher's HBO show a couple weeks back, Maher lamented hip-hop's preponderance of gonna-steal-your-girlfriend songs, marveling at their apparent popularity among young dudes who actually ought to be offended—or, at least, concerned. Specifically, he likened it to the Beatles cutting a song called "She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah, And I'm Gonna Fuck Her."

That Beatles song actually exists. It's on Help! It's called "You're Going to Lose That Girl." And though it's couched as a valiant rescue mission—"you" have failed the girl in question by not taking her out enough, etc.—the song is not metaphorical. "I'll make a point of taking her away from you," John announces, a threat made not just tolerable but immensely pleasurable by the sort of effortlessly gorgeous, deceptively simple vocal harmonies with which the band is now synonymous. It would be an honor to lose that girl to such fine gentlemen.

Speaking personally, I would rather this transaction take place in stereo. The argument for its opposite as The Way They Intended You to Hear It is a valid one: As the dominant format of the time, way more attention was paid to the mono mixes all the way up until Abbey Road, whereupon they were dumped entirely. And again, the mono box's mini-vinyl presentation is marvelously twee; the stereo discs have mini-documentaries and extensive liner notes, offering both dry recording-studio data and somewhat wan historical perspective (the daffy original-release liners, when offered, are way more fun), but they can't compare to that level of precious objectification. But through headphones especially, the warmth, fullness, clarity, grit, etc. of those first four records (on CD in stereo for the first time!) is startling. Yes, John had a cold while recording Please Please Me; yes, the phlegm is almost audible, or you can almost convince yourself it is. (And yes, that's a selling point.)

Not to say the unearthliness of those early highlights—the hymnlike elegance of "If I Fell" (Paul's voice doesn't even crack in mono!), the sweet Motown worship evident in With the Beatles' gorgeous cover of "You Really Got a Hold on Me"—suffers much in either format. On the later, weirder records, that's less true: The mono version of the White Album is immediately disqualified, as "Helter Skelter" doesn't have the part at the end where Ringo screams, "I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!!" Doing extensive, deep-concentration, track-by-track, side-by-side comparisons of the two Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band iterations is a particularly hallucinatory way to spend an afternoon, but you can only listen to "She's Leaving Home" so many times before your heart breaks.

Hardcore audiophiles with money to burn are not begrudged the impulse to own both boxes—the Beatles are basically a one-band justification for being a hardcore audiophile in the first place. But Ringo's blisters aside, it comes down to personal preference, headphones vs. speakers, being bowled over vs. being surrounded, so on and so forth. Choose a side. We're in a recession.

Me, I'll take the box that gives you Abbey Road. The most luxurious single minute of this entire remastering bacchanal is the first 60 seconds of "You Never Give Me Your Money," weeping piano in your left ear, lithe and bluesy guitar in your right, Paul's voice floating delicately in between. And even then, an extensive, deep-concentration, side-by-side comparison between the old '87 CD and the remaster doesn't uncover much sonic difference except maybe in the case of Paul's bass, when it finally meanders in, emboldened now into a forceful bum, bum, bum that you'd be less inclined to describe as "farting."

Emboldened basslines are among the remasters' more tangible benefits, Paul's deliciously subtle showoff tendencies setting the tone for Rubber Soul ("Drive My Car") and especially Revolver ("Taxman") immediately. Ringo, too, enjoys a bit more power and resonance—no Keith Moon he, but no impassive stooge, either. He can bring forth the thunder when the thunder is required. Which brings me to my new favorite Beatles song: "Birthday."

Yes, that one. The whole second disc of the White Album is a mesmerizing, schizophrenic trip. (Another reason to favor the stereo: that passive bingo caller calling "Number 9? Number 9?" panning slowly, hypnotically back and forth across your cerebral cortex.) But "Birthday" sets the tone immediately for all the deranged ebullience that follows, Ringo pounding with all his might as his mates scream, "I'M GLAD IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!" directly in both ears amid joyous bursts of piano and fusillades of handclaps. It's a song you're quite possibly (and justifiably) sick of, a baseball-stadium cliché by definition, but, in this context, canonized and lavishly refurbished at last, it sounds both hilariously crazed and defiantly, improbably beautiful. Whether it's the painstaking remastering job or just the prism of reverent nostalgia, it sounds wonderful now, pure and triumphant and unstoppable. Even through earbuds.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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